Sunday, January 24, 2016

At Sundance - Days two to five

As I've continued my assignment as a volunteer at Sundance for my second year, I've had the chance to see several great movies. I've enjoyed all the movies I've seen, but want to give particular shout-outs, observations and predictions about a few of them.

Jesse Plemons is going to be a star

I've seen Jesse Plemons in three movies in the past couple of months:   Black Mass, Bridge of Spies, and now Chris Kelly's touching film Other People which premiered this weekend at Sundance. Plemons reminds me a lot of the late-great Philip Seymour Hoffman. In each of the films I've seen him he plays very different characters, and he's spot on with each. He's quickly becoming one of these actors that everyone wants to work with.

Kelly's film is very well done. If I could ask him a question it would be: what were your thoughts when you were making your film, and you saw James White? Because Other People and James White are ridiculously similar... however, their tone is extremely different. From personal experience, I am sure Kelly freaked out and felt like he was ruined, for a moment. Then I bet he realized that it's all about tone. And the tone of these two films are light years apart. I'm sure the programmers at Sundance would agree, otherwise, they wouldn't have scheduled these two films in back-to-back years.

Jesse Plemons and Molly Shannon star in Chris Kelly's Other People

Molly Shannon is very smart

Recently I've fallen in love with Molly Shannon. She was always great in her SNL days, but now she has embraced the role of being an Indie Darling. She has consistently done great work, and it won't be long before she starts doing bigger and bigger roles. By seeking out great directors, and not shying away from small budgets or first-time directors, she has amassed an impressive body of work. In fact, I feel her work has been better than just about any SNL alumni as far as quality and authenticity (except for Bill Murray - but she's definitely followed his model). On top of that, friends of mine who have worked with her, say that she is just an amazing person to work with as well. Hopefully for everyone involved, Other People, will help to get her the mainstream praise she deserves (though may not be interested in).

Molly Shannon at the premiere of Other People

Everyone involved in the movie The Free World is awesome

I hope this movie gets to rise above the indie-scope and gets some people out to see it. It's an amazingly tight, well executed, poetic, and intense thriller with great performances from Boyd Holbrook and Elisabeth Moss. Jason Lew, the film's writer/director, is headed for great things. The filmmaking world would be better with more films like this.

It's cool to just be able to stand near Paul Dano

I was very happy that Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe fought their way through a blizzard to come to the Grand Theater in Salt Lake City for the Q&A following their screening of Swiss Army Man. The film is unlike any other and is a whole lot of fun. There was all of this silly scandal because some people walked out. People walk out of movies at Sundance all the time. There's a lot of people who just get tickets, but are sensitive about what they watch; so they roll the dice, and if it's not to their liking they leave. That's cool. I think a movie like Swiss Army Man has a particular audience, however, and I think that audience will eat this up.  I thought the film was very entertaining and visually inventive.

At the Grand it's an almost all local crowd. Seldom will you find many industry people there. So, it's great when directors come to do the Q&A (and most of them do), but it's seldom that actors make the journey... even more rare for actors of the profile of Dano and Radcliffe.

Mr. Dano is my favorite actor right now, so I was excited to just stand a few feet from him after the screening. It made my night.

Paul Dano in Swiss Army Man

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Sundance 2016 - day one

One of the highlights of the year for me, and for most independent filmmakers is the Sundance Film Festival. This year my film, Superpowerless, didn't get selected to the festival. So, I am like the thousands of other filmmakers who are still waiting to find a premiere for their film. However, as I watch the films at the festival I am happy to say that while I don't respond to them all equally, I am still inspired and excited by what I see. It's going to be a great festival and I can't wait to get the most out of it.

First, this is the second year I supervise a group of volunteers from the Utah Valley University's Digital Cinema program. We get to work as ushers at the Grand Theater in Salt Lake City, and it's a great assignment. As ushers we get to make sure people are in their seats, and then watch films. Not a bad gig at all.

I have also arranged for some great Meet-the-Filmmakers events for the students - more on that later.

In my newly reawakened blog I will post a brief diary about my thoughts and impressions of this year's festival.

Day One (Tuesday January 19)

As a volunteer we get to enjoy volunteer screenings and the first two films I saw were among the best films I've seen at Sundance in any year.

Life, Animated - A beautiful film by Roger Ross Williams about autism and the wonder of the human spirit, movies, and family. This film had me smiling throughout. It's a great documentary and I'm excited to have Ross at one of our Meet-the-Filmmaker events. Definitely watch this film.

Under the Shadow - This film scared me to death. I'm not good at scary films, but I did sit through it, unlike a lot of my fellow volunteers who scampered out. This is seriously one of the most terrifying movies I've ever seen, and one of the coolest. Another must see.

Congratulations two these two great films and their impressive filmmaking teams, and thanks for letting them screen for volunteers. If these two films are an indicator of what the festival is going to be like this year, it's going to be an amazing festival.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Interview with Tom DiCillo (Living in Oblivion)

It's been a long time since I've posted, but I'm back (and I'm going hard). I haven't been posting lately because I was hired a year and a half ago to teach film production at Utah Valley University. Now I have even more content to share, but much less time. I will try to keep at it though.

One of the coolest things I get to do at UVU is a program I call CineSkype. We watch a film, then Skype with the filmmaker. We've had a lot of great filmmakers talk to us over the past few semesters, and most of the interviews are available online. One of the most engaging we've had was with Tom DiCillo recently, who shared a wide range of insights with us. I highly recommend watching this interview for anyone interested in independent film... and of course, I also highly recommend his film "Living in Oblivion" to anyone interested in independent film. It is a classic that does for micro-budget filmmaking what Spinal Tap does for heavy metal.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Project of the Week, Please vote for Superpowerless

Please go to IndieWire and vote for my film Superpowerless as the project of the week. This requires voting, entering your email, then going to your email and confirming your vote (my confirmation email went to Spam, so you may have to check it). Being project of the week is Super for publicity, and street cred. Plus we get a distribution consultation from SnagFilms. Please do this now and share with all of your friends. Please spread the word!!!

I know it's been a long time since I wrote, and I've seen several people have sent me some messages on my Facebook page which I haven't been keeping up with. I apologize. I have been busy with things. Since my last post I shot my first film as a director and have been hired to teach film production at Utah Valley University. So, needless to say, things have been crazy. 

I am excited to post again though, seeing how this blog has stayed alive and active without me.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Today's Tip: SAG Weekly and Daily Contracts and Consecutive Employment

One way to save a little money on any SAG project is to sign your actors to a weekly contract as opposed to a daily contract.... Wait! Not ANY project, as there is no Weekly Performer option for Ultra Low Budget projects.

For all other contracts the cost of scale for a Weekly Performer is slightly less than the cost of paying a daily performer for four days of work. Therefore, unless a performer is working three consecutive days or less, it makes sense to sign them to a weekly contract. This gives you some freedom as well. If someone is being paid weekly, it won't be a problem to bring them in for a shot where they are just in the background, or a scene that they are in only a moment. If you're paying them a daily, and you are like me, you will stress about spending the money for such a small moment and try to squeeze them into a different day when they're already doing something else. It also creates flexibility (and saves money) for when you miss a day and have to throw another day onto a performer's schedule.

It will also save you as you work with Consecutive Employment. On the standard SAG Contract and Low Budget Contract ($500,000 to $2,000,000) a performer must be paid for down days between their work day. So if I hire an actor to work Monday and Friday I have to pay them for Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday as well. While it would be preferred to shoot them out in two consecutive days, it is frequently impossible. Therefore, hiring the actor as a Weekly Performer will save you about a day and a half's worth of pay.

SAG's Ultra Low ($0-$200,000) and Low Budget Modified ($200,000 - $500,000) contracts do not require Consecutive Employment payments.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Understanding SAG residuals (part 1) -- SAG Final Cast List, Time and Salary Units

Residuals are income due to SAG performers (or other union members such as the DGA or WGA) as your film makes money in its various ancillary markets. I will now attempt to explain the residual process over a series of blogs.

I'll breakdown from what you pay residuals on in another blog. We'll start now with how SAG calculates what percentage of the total residual payment each actor gets. We'll do this because it's the first thing you have to deal with because it's calculated on the SAG Final Cast List that you turn in at the end of production. Your payroll company may fill this out. A recent company told me they'd charge an additional $100 to fill it out, so to save a few bucks I took the opportunity to learn how it works and do it myself.

In calculating who gets what we work with what's called "SALARY UNITS" and "TIME UNITS." These units measure the distribution of residuals based on the amount of money they made and time they spent on your project.

They are calculated differently for performers on a weekly or daily contract. SAG sets a different rate for weekly or daily performer, with a weekly performer rate being slightly less than the total of five days worked on a daily contract. Unless a performer is only working a few consecutive days they should always be scheduled as weekly performer. Unless, you're shooting with the SAG Ultra Low Budget contract, in which case there is no option for weekly performers.

Weekly Contracts (See the chart below for examples).

Weekly Salary Units: For each week worked a performer working for the weekly scale rate receives one Salary Unit. Weeks are calculated by five days, so if they worked six days, it's one week plus one day. Each day is equal to .2 units, so a person on a weekly contract who works six days will receive 1.2 salary units, and so on.

If, however, the person makes any more than scale, due to a higher rate, or even over time, then the weekly scale is divided into their total salary to determine units.

To find out what their total Salary Units would be you'd divide the performer's gross salary received by SAG's designated scale for whatever particular contract you are working with.

For instance, if someone in a low budget modified project (which has a $933.00 scale for weekly performers) received a flat guarantee of $5,000 the equation would be:

5,000 ÷ 933 = 5.36

Or, in other words: salary units = total gross ÷  weekly scale

So the performer would receive 5.35 Salary Units. However, to prevent uneven payment among performers, Salary Units max out at ten (10). So, in the example below (see the chart), the top performer received a flat guarantee of $20,000 for twelve days worked. Applying the formula results in this:

20,000 ÷ 933 = 21.44 

But, since Salary Units max at ten, this performer receives 10 Salary Units.

Weekly Time Units: Each week worked is equal to one Time Unit. Because each day is worth .2 units, the performer working six days would receive 1.2 Time units. This will stay the same whether they're working scale or being paid a million dollars a day. For instance, in the chart below, the person on the first line is working for a high flat rate, but their time units still reflect the amount of days they actually worked.

Daily Contracts

Daily Time Units: Daily time units were laid out above: .2 units for each day. So an actor who works four days receives .8 units and an actor who works fifteen days receives 3 units.

Daily Salary Units: Daily Salary Units are, like their weekly counterparts, a bit more complicated. You take the performer's TOTAL GROSS SALARY divide that by scale, then multiply that by .2. The equation looks like this:

salary unit=total gross ÷ daily scale x .2

Consequently, a player who works one day at scale without overtime will always have a total salary unit of .2, because (using the SAG Low Budget Modified contract) $268 (total gross) ÷ $268 (scale) = 1 x .2 = .2.

If a player is making more than scale, then this formula will remain the same and work fine. As in: $1000 ÷ $268 = 3.73 x .2 = .75.

Once you've calculated the Time and Salary Units you simply add them up to get the Total Units. You then add up the Total Units for the Total Cast Units and then calculate what total percentage each performer has of the total, which will show you how to divvy up those residuals when it's time to pay them out.

For an example look at this copy of a Final Cast List from a Low Budget Modified film that I produced. The Weekly players are above the middle black line, and the daily players are below the middle black line.

An screenshot from an actual Final Cast List for a Low Budget Modified project (scale = $268)

We'll get to how to calculate what needs to be paid from what income in a later post. So, stay tuned for that and happy shooting.

In the meantime: 

I've worked with several payroll companies in Hollywood and elsewhere, but not many of them will also handle Residuals. Entertainment Partners are one of the largest that does, and my experience with them has been great. They have my recommendation.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

How to be a great production assistant

You've been hired as a Production Assistant (or more likely you've volunteered your services). Great. Welcome to the wonderful, grueling, demanding world that is the bottom-of-the-ladder on a film set. You will learn a lot. You will meet some awesome people. You will work very, very hard.

I've often said that some people show up on set their first day and just seem to get it. Instinctively they seem to know what needs to get done, and the best way to do it. They are immediately wanted by every department to be part of their team, and are hired back again and again. Others, just don't seem to have a clue. They are in the way, they have to be explained things over and over. The production moves slower because they are involved. I was one of the latter. I just didn't get it. In fact I had to stop doing movies, and come back making my own in order to learn what was needed, and WHY it was needed. I had to view things from the top down to get it.

I've often wondered what the difference between these two types are, and while I think it's mostly innate, there are a few philosophies you can espouse that will help you.

1) Remember, you are not there to be creative. That is not your function EVER. You are there to serve the creative people who have been hired to be creative. It's not that you're not creative, or that people don't think you are. It's just not your job to be creative... yet. When telling this to someone recently, he asked if he made just one suggestion a day, would it be out of line (he meant to the director on our super micro set)? I said one suggestion a month would be out of line. You think that your director, who has directed five feature films, is going to want to be given ideas from some kid on his very first shoot? Don't ever, EVER think of yourself as a creative.

Yet there will be important ways to be creative: How to creatively get six coffee cups in a container that holds four; how to get your car from point A to point B the fastest without getting a ticket; how to get pedestrians to walk around the set in a way that won't make them upset or disrupt the crew. These are your creative concerns. If you do your job creatively you'll be well liked, if you try to suggest thoughts or opinions about what the Creative team is doing you will be fired.

2) You are there to WORK. Don't ever forget that your job is to kick butt. Don't ever feel like you're being ill used for being told to work... even if the work seems pointless. Don't ever allow yourself to be standing around with no purpose. A lot of times you will find yourself with nothing to do. Do something. Ask someone if you can help them. Ask people if they need anything. Bring your immediate supervisor a water. Pick up garbage in the street. Get a wet-wipe and clean cables. NEVER stand and watch. When you're told to hold up pedestrians, face the directions the pedestrians are coming, don't face the production. You will not see someone coming and they will slip past you. Do YOUR job well.

3) Some crews require PAs to be standing up always. I don't make that a requirement. BUT if I see a PA sitting I wonder why they're sitting. Don't sit. Stand. Expect to stand for 12 hours. If your AD or Production Manager says you can sit while doing something, then you can do it. If you don't like that, get a job in post (you'll be dying to stand).

4) Don't worry that you don't know what a Half Apple or a C-47 are. You'll learn. Tell people, this is my first movie, so I don't know what that means. Once you are told, NEVER forget. You don't want to have to be told twice. Be sure to ask questions, to the people that you are working with directly. Buy the book STRIKE THE BABY AND KILL THE BLONDE, an imperfect reference book of film terms. It will get you started. When I was on my first shoot the DP told me to "86 that rug." I sat there blinking, trying with all my might to figure out what 86 means. He simply said, "It means move it." I quickly moved it saying, "Sorry, first movie." No worries. I never had to be told what it meant again.

5) You will work 12-16 hour days. Expect it. Anything less is a gift. Don't check your watch and let it eat you up. Don't tell your friends you'll meet them at 8, then worry about having to cancel. Just face the fact you will have no family or social life during the duration of the production. If you have a boyfriend or a girlfriend, you might want to just break up before a long shoot. You might meet someone on set anyway. A great movie to watch for many reasons is Truffaut's Day For Night. There's a great line it: I would leave a boy for a movie, but I'd never leave a movie for a boy.

Follow these simple directions and you should do fine. You may not have the innate skill that some of the Naturals have, but you should make it through without getting fired, and may even be asked to come back again.

One of the Naturals: Drew Sugimoto, left, showed up as an unpaid PA on the set of Surrogate Valentine in 2010 (invited by friend Minori Nishime, right). Seen here with the show's star Goh Nakamura.

Three years and five or six projects later (filmed in three different states), I'm still hiring him (even without his braces). Here he and I are with Bill Nye the Science Guy on the set of An Honest Liar.